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Luke Hohmann on Incorporating Play into Work

InfoQ recently had the opportunity to chat with Innovation Games inventor Luke Hohmann about his  love of incorporating play into work and his roots in the agile community. Luke is keynoting Playcamp London on 24 March, a community-driven conference for exploring how serious games and collaborative play are being used in the business world.

InfoQ: Luke, You’re the inventor of Innovation Games® and have been incorporating serious games and collaborative play into your work for more than a decade. What makes “play” and “games” such an important part of your work?

Human beings really are hardwired for play--despite the fact that somewhere in history, people began to see “work” and “play” as opposite concepts. We use more of our brains when absorbed in play, then when we’re performing simple analytical tasks--there have been countless studies on the connection between play and learning, including a recent study by cognitive scientists on the increased brain wave patterns of eight year olds while playing with Legos.

Beyond research though, just think of the last time you really accomplished something at work. Or how it felt when you really worked well within a team. By using serious games and collaborative play, you can get that moment, that flow, much more often.

InfoQ: How did you begin incorporating serious games and collaborative play into your work?

The very first Innovation Game was created when I was in one of my first managerial roles at EDS. I was asked to manage a team that showed zero empathy for its customers, none. While getting my BS and MS in computer at University of Michigan, I had studied cognitive psychology and organizational behavior under Elliot Soloway, Karl Weick and Dan Dennison. That background in human and organizational behavior prompted me to have the engineers spend a few weeks “doing the job” of their customers. This experience allowed them to better understand and empathize with their customers, and they easily committed to creating the system the customers needed. That experience was the foundation for game The Apprentice.

Over the years, I continued to find ways to incorporate collaborative play into work by designing serious games to help people collaborate to solve business problems:  At companies like ObjectSpace, Aurigin Systems, Aladdin, Qualcomm and others. It was actually SAP that asked for an online version of Innovation Games--and I was skeptical--but they said, you taught us to listen to our customers using Innovation Games, and we’re your customer asking you to consider this.  A decade later, we have three cloud-based collaborative game platforms and tens of 1,000s of in-person and online collaborative games facilitated to solve complex business problems.

InfoQ: Many people are familiar with using Innovation Games as part of the agile development process, for product roadmapping or retrospectives. Can you give us some insight into Innovation Games’ use outside of the agile team?

Our roots as a company really are in the agile world -- Innovation Games having been first launched when I was running an agile product management consulting company, Enthiosys (now Applied Frameworks).  Over the last decade, however, we’ve seen Innovation Games used across the enterprise -- for market research, product design and development, corporate strategy--and even in the public sector in municipalities and nonprofits. 

We’ve found the techniques useful in any situation where people have to collaborate effectively with each other. Adobe Systems, for example, has been using the games almost exclusively with their customers as part of their customer advisory board program. Transamerica has made Innovation Games Online part of its mission to incorporate employees into the innovation process, really using the games to bring about a cultural change. has used the games in a massive retrospective with its global Scrum development teams. We’ve worked with the city of San Jose and other municipalities through Budget Games and other serious games designed to help increase civic engagement in communities.  Everything we do is about improving collaboration -- and we’ve found no better way than collaborative play.

InfoQ: Gamification and serious games are obviously more accepted these days, but how do you deal with skeptics? People who aren’t convinced or are uninterested in using collaborative play at work?

Well, there will always be skeptics, but the bigger problems are individuals who aren’t interested in listening to their customers. And those people, you can’t convince.

The label you put on the technique doesn’t matter—you can call it a game, online focus group or exercise—what matters is the goal. If you want to work better together or better understand your customers, then we’ll be in sync.

InfoQ: Collaboration-- and the need for improved collaboration in our increasingly distributed world -- seems to be at the root of using games or collaborative at work. Why?

The complexity faced by business leaders is only growing. We face multiple dimensions of time, location, products, customers, market shifts, rapid growth. And based on the scope of problems facing many organizations, and the limitations of current forms of collaboration to solve them, we find that many organizations are really struggling. Not surprising, since many of the online collaboration tools that claim to help you tackle these issues aren’t really about collaboration at all, but communication. If you want to tackle these multidimensional “problems” and succeed, you need to combine technology, collaboration and analysis.

That’s really what my talk “Collaboration as Multidimensional Play” at Playcamp will be about:  How we can use collaborative play online and in-person, now and over time, in small groups and at scale, to solve complex business problems.

InfoQ: Can you tell us a bit about the Playcamp initiative and how people can get involved?

Playcamps are one-day, locally organized conferences for celebrating how individuals and organizations are using collaborative play and serious games at work. They combine the best parts of traditional conferences and open space events and are inspired in part by ProductCamp, which I started in 2008. (And I have to thank Michael Sahota for originally coming up with the name Playcamp.) If anyone is interested in bringing Playcamp to their town, they should check out



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